In the opening program of this new season, Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony pay tribute to a man who was surely one of the most creative and charismatic musicians of the 20th century – the legendary Leonard Bernstein – whose Centennial will be celebrated throughout the 2017-18 season.
Composer, conductor, performer, educator and humanitarian, Bernstein was the recipient of countless honorary degrees and decorations by foreign governments, a host of awards – Grammy, recording, Emmy, television, arts and civic awards – honorary membership of an array of illustrious societies, and five highly prestigious honorary offices. He has had a remarkable impact on the world of music – whether classical, film or theatrical – and we know that he was a close friend of Michael Tilson Thomas, and had a significant influence on the development of his career.
It is surely with the greatest pleasure that MTT and the Symphony Celebrate Bernstein at the beginning of his Centennial season, and the program chosen for this week reflects a selection of works as eclectic and interesting as the man himself is known to have been.
The program opener, Bernstein’s Prelude, Fugue, and Riffs, recalls the era of the big band. Originally intended for Woody Hermann’s jazz band in 1949, it was shelved before its completion, and it wasn’t until Bernstein’s Omnibus television broadcast in October 1955 that the completed piece – dedicated to Benny Goodman – was first performed, demonstrating what’s described as “Bernstein’s unique ability to embrace a style and make it his own”. Scored for solo clarinet and jazz ensemble, the work was performed with clarinetist Al Gallodoro as soloist, a role which this week will be taken by San Francisco Symphony Principal Clarinet, Carey Bell.
Leonard Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms is certainly one of his more intriguing works. Commissioned by the Very Rev Walter Hussey, Dean of Chichester Cathedral in Sussex, for the Southern Cathedrals Festival in 1965, it’s a work in three movements, sung in Hebrew, each featuring one complete Psalm and excerpts from another paired Psalm. Musically, it brings together both the Christian and Hebrew religious traditions, yet it has a jazzy, contemporary sound – with “a hint of West Side Story” about it, in accordance with the wishes of the Dean, a well-known patron of the arts. Bernstein described the work as “popular in feeling,” with “an old-fashioned sweetness along with its more violent moments.” This work features the voices of the San Francisco Symphony Chorus – directed by Ragnar Bohlin – and the boy soprano is 13 year-old Nicholas Hu, who has been singing with the Ragazzi Boys’ Chorus in Redwood City since the age of seven.
The somewhat unusual title of Bernstein’s Arias and Barcarolles is attributed to Dwight D Eisenhower, who – in complimenting the composer after a performance of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue which he had conducted – said: “I liked that last piece you played. It’s got a theme. I like music with a theme, not all them arias and barcarolles.” This eight-part song cycle for mezzo-soprano, baritone, and two pianos, is fascinating for its range of different compositional styles. It premiered at the Equitable Center auditorium in New York City on May 9, 1988, as a benefit for Young Concert Artists. And the two pianists? They were none other than Leonard Bernstein and Michael Tilson Thomas.
The guest artists in this week’s performances are mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard – winner of two Grammy Awards – who most recently appeared with the Symphony as Claire in Bernstein’s On the Town last year, and bass-baritone Ryan McKinny, described by Opera News as “one of the finest singers of his generation”, who makes his debut at San Francisco Opera this season in the world premiere of John Adams’s Girls of the Golden West. The orchestration of Arias and Barcarolles was created by Bruce Coughlin in 1993, and first heard on September 26 of that year at the Barbican Centre in London. Michael Tilson Thomas conducted the London Symphony Orchestra, with soloists Frederica von Stade and Thomas Hampson.
On August 19, 1957, Broadway was stunned by the premiere of the musical West Side Story. With a score by Leonard Bernstein, choreography by Jerome Robbins, libretto by Arthur Laurents and lyrics by a then-unknown Stephen Sondheim, West Side Story came to represent “an essential, influential chapter in the history of American theater” – a stark reflection of the social issues of the time. Placed somewhere between opera and musical comedy, Bernstein’s fabulous score – reflecting musical styles of both the Old and the New World – is still as relevant today as it was 60 years ago, and still retains its popularity. As recently as 2013, Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony presented a hugely successful concert version of the score – the first time that the complete musical had ever been performed in a live concert setting. A CD of this concert version was released on the Symphony’s in-house label SFS Media.
Four years after the show’s premiere, Bernstein took nine sections from the score, and created the Symphonic Dances from West Side Story – the final work in this week’s program. He didn’t present them in the order in which they appear in the show, but created instead an uninterrupted sequence “derived from a strictly musical rationale”, hence the title Symphonic Dances – they were symphonically conceived as a concert piece, and totally independent of the on-stage acions to which they were linked in the musical production. The now hugely popular Symphonic Dances from West Side Story were first performed on February 13, 1961, with Lukas Foss conducting the New York Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall, in a pension fund gala concert titled “A Valentine for Leonard Bernstein”.
Prior to each of this week’s concerts, a special one-hour Inside Music talk will be hosted by renowned Leonard Bernstein scholar, Humphrey Burton – former Head of Music at the BBC, concert and opera director, impresario and biographer. Mr Burton’s talks feature a rare interview with Michael Tilson Thomas, who will share memories of his working relationship with Bernstein. Other highlights include Burton’s own insights, stories, and video from his 20-year collaboration with Leonard Bernstein.
Michael Tilson Thomas leads the San Francisco Symphony, the San Francisco Symphony Chorus and guest artists in a celebration of the music of Leonard Bernstein at Davis Symphony Hall on September 22, 23 and 24. For more information and tickets, visit the San Francisco Symphony website.
San Francisco Symphony program notes
Leonard Bernstein – also the source of all quotes used